One of the ways Hughes Brothers alleviates customer concerns is by examining bridge materials it installed 15 years ago to prove their reliability. Last summer, the company began partnering with two universities, Owens Corning and state Departments of Transportation to core and extract GFRP rebar samples from bridges in Missouri and Texas. They use a scanning electron microscope and energy dispersive X-rays to look for chemical traces of degradation. “We’re not finding anything,” says Gremel. “That’s very reassuring.” Hughes Brothers and its partners foot the bill for these bridge examinations, hoping they will reassure prospective clients, too.
HCB Inc. also invests in testing to persuade clients of the advantages of composite solutions. “We’ve done various types of testing with our technology – either in the laboratory or in situ – including 13 research projects conducted by eight different institutes to the tune of about $3 million,” says Hillman. The company conducted full-size prototype testing on the first four bridges it fabricated with its proprietary beams. It examined fatigue, ultimate strength, skewed effects, lateral impact and other factors. “The challenge we have with highway projects is that despite all the testing, when we go to a state that hasn’t deployed FRP in a bridge they often want to start from scratch,” says Hillman.
Another challenge is getting in front of the right customer. “In the transportation industry, you really cater to three different clients,” says Hillman. “You’ve got to make the owners interested in using your technology in their infrastructure assets, convince the designers that it’s as good or better a solution as the existing technologies and persuade the contractor it’s simple to install.”
He adds that most of the time the owner and designer will specify materials, but the end client is the contractor who buys them. “Contractors are the definitive voice because they are ultimately responsible for installing your technology,” he says. “If they perceive a benefit, then composites will be attractive to them.”
Despite the benefits, the biggest hurdle to selling GFRP products is often cost. “The price of our product is higher than the price of the traditional product,” says Reeve. “We offer many benefits over traditional materials – corrosion resistance, low maintenance and life cycle savings. However, if the customer doesn’t value those benefits, it doesn’t matter.”